Commentary: Enough anger to go around over government irresponsibility

I understand why so many Americans are angry. I am angry, too.

The nation is mired in two costly wars. The economy tanked because of greedy bankers, investors, lenders and borrowers. Schools and other vital institutions are in crisis. Things our society used to take for granted — from affordable health care to jobs that can fund a middle-class lifestyle — are hard for many people to find.

The angry people getting most of the attention lately are the Tea Party screamers — mostly older, white, more affluent folks who preach a gospel of selfishness. They see the problem as "big government."

But I encounter a larger, quieter, though still angry group of people every day. They don't wave flags, wax nonsensically about the Constitution or seek to live in some idealized past.

These people, both Democrats and Republicans, think the Tea Partiers' diagnosis of what is wrong with America is missing a couple of words and most of the point. They see the problem as "big business" and "irresponsible government".

Free enterprise is what makes America great — the ability of individuals to work hard and succeed, to be both "free" and responsible members of society. But for that to work, it takes responsible government to provide infrastructure, keep the system honest and protect the vulnerable. Government is not "them," it is "us".

Responsible government has been hard to find lately. One reason is both Democrats and Republicans have been lavishly funded by big business, and the Supreme Court's conservative majority recently opened the floodgates for even more corporate influence.

Another problem is both Republicans and Democrats want to spend too much and tax too little. The nation's social safety net and economic security are threatened by rising debt, but money keeps flowing to corporate giveaways, pork-barrel projects and unrealistic entitlement programs. Not to mention ill-conceived wars.

At the same time, irresponsible politicians have repeatedly cut taxes, especially for the wealthy. What the "taxed enough already" crowd will not acknowledge is federal taxes for almost everyone are their lowest in decades.

Republicans like to complain about health care reform being a "government takeover." In reality, it is nothing like the government-run health care that works pretty well in most other western democracies. This reform was basically a sop to the health care industrial complex. While it expands coverage to more people, it does little to control costs and lacks a public option to private insurance.

"Socialist" President Barack Obama is the focus of much right-wing anger. But liberals — not to mention the nation's few actual socialists — note that most of his policies would have made him a solid Republican only a few decades ago.

Tea Partiers love to rant against government regulation, as if markets were the product of magic rather than human nature. Anyone can find examples here and there of regulation that overreaches or is silly. But many of today's biggest problems were caused by too little regulation, not too much.

The economic crisis was largely the result of deregulation and a lack of oversight of the financial industry under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The biggest problem with federal environmental laws has been that, until recently, they were barely enforced, despite what the "drill baby, drill" and "dig baby, dig" crowds like to claim.

As BP's broken well gushes crude oil, destroying the environment and the livelihoods of thousands of people along the Gulf Coast, some Tea Party candidates want to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency. Excuse me?

One of the most absurd examples of political theory trumping common sense occurred last week. In an interview with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, Rand Paul, fresh from winning Kentucky's Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, indicated he thought the 1964 Civil Rights Act was an example of government over-reaching.

Echoing comments he made last month to the Courier-Journal editorial board, Paul suggested restaurants, for example, shouldn't be required by law to serve black or gay people if they didn't want to. Only later, amid outrage even from within his own party, did Paul finally take a stand in favor of a half-century of settled civil rights law.

"I hope he can separate the theoretical and the interesting and the hypothetical questions that college students debate until 2 a.m. from the actual votes we have to cast based on real legislation here," Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Senate's second-ranking Republican, told The New York Times.

Something tells me it is going to be a long six months until November.


Tom Eblen is a columnist for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader. He can be reached by email at teblen@herald-leader.com. Read and comment on his blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at Kentucky.com.